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In the deepness of Siberian closets

January 23, 2019 - Dario Planert - Articles and Commentary

Wall in Irkutsk with the inscription "We are guilty and love is right“ Photo: Dario Planert

Until recently a flag, painted on the balustrade, contrasted the otherwise concrete-grey waterfront next to the Angara River, which trenches the city of Irkutsk into halves. Its rainbow colors attracted attention of disapproving minds. Now it is gone, but those who painted it to hint at their irrevocable existence are still here. One of them stands at the balustrade right now, his gaze sliding along the opposite bank of the river, where trains are leaving for Moscow. The journey will take them about three days. His name is Yevgeniy Glebov, activist and co-founder of the local NGO “Time to Act” (Vremya Deystviy), which campagins for the equality of LGBT citizens. They are continuing a tradition that had arrived in Siberia some 200 years ago.

On August 26th 1826, a strange caravan circling around a group of haggard but handsome prisoners passed through the triumphal arch of the city of Irkutsk, then the capital of Eastern Siberia. After an exhausting 37-day-long journey they had reached their final destination. It had been a journey of 6000 kilometres, starting from the heart of St. Petersburg‘s Peter and Paul Fortress and ending in a picturesque Siberian country scene. Even though Irkutsk was still within the boundaries of the Tsarist Empire these men were about as far from home as Columbus was when he reached the Bahamas. Few of them were left with illusions: they would never see their homes again.

Those strangers were no regular prisoners, but Decembrists – a group of mainly young officers of the Imperial Russian Army who had just attempted to murder the tsar, establish a Russian republic, liberate the serfs and grant equal rights to all citizens.

About 600 Decembrists were exiled to Siberia. They brought with them a weakened yet defiant notion of freedom, fueled by the words of Russia’s national Poet Alexander Pushkin: “In the deepness of Siberian mines, maintain your honorable endurance.”

194 years later the city of Irkutsk honors its once so distrustfully welcomed guests as the catalyst for Siberia’s cultural development. But what about its freedom?

Yevgeniy’s assessment of the Decembrist’s heritage is bitter. “Social activism in Russia is dying out,” he says.

Setting up a meeting with Yevgeniy turned out to not be the easiest task. It took more than a month and four failed attempts. Along the way he had made the impression of being very suspicious of a stranger’s endeavour to write about his activism. This was not surprising, as the Russian community of LGBT activists faces constant provocation. Harassment comes from either those who are trying to manipulate them into making mistakes which could provide prosecutors with an exuse to charge them, or homophobic vigilantes who lure them into fake dates at remote places where they are then horribly assaulted or worse. Eventually the endeavour was about to fall through when a message came in: “Tomorrow we will see each other for sure!“

Yevgeniy was late. He had come directly from a mission in the neighbouring city of Angarsk, where Time to Act has opened its only bureau in Irkutsk Oblast. He was called there after a supposedly gay boy had been beaten up by strangers. Upon his arrival the police had not detained the perpetrators but the victim. “They threatened him and kept on asking why he was shaming the country. They also tried to put the bite on me. A kind of ‘Why are you ruining the youth.’ It’s a common police procedure here towards gays,“ he says.

In January 2013 Yevgeniy co-founded a project called “We are Equal“ (My Ravny), which was renamed into Time to Act in November 2016. 

“The motivation was the protection of LGBT citizens‘ rights in Irkutsk and the Irkutsk Oblast. At the moment the organization is providing juridicial and psychological support. But we also conduct events together with the Aids-center and the project ‘Navigator’, which is educating people on the prevention of HIV infections,” Yevgeniy recounts.

According to Yevgeniy there are about eight activists in Irkutsk, the majority of them female, who regularly supporting the work of the organization. In addition there are two transgender activists who occasionally attend and organize events. He estimates the overall number of LGBT activists in the Irkutsk Oblast, which extends to more than twice the size of Germany and harbors about 2.5 million inhabitants, to be about 40. Naturally this means a lot of work for those who take responsibility. Yevgeniy receives around five calls for help a week. The majority of them are calling for the first time. Yet devotion to his work does not feed him, it is all voluntary. Apart from the activism he works at a local bakery.

Two years ago Yevgeniy was met by two strangers waiting at the front door of his apartment. “Aren‘t you that gay activist?“ they demanded, approaching him. He had to spend time in a hospital to recover from the assault. Police closed the case without having investigated a suspect. To this day,Yevgeniy asks himself how these men would have learned his address. He does not feel safe even at home anymore. The case had attracted the attention of a local news platform that wrote an article about him and local LGBT activism in which he claimed the right to be regarded as an equal citizen. One user wrote: “They are just as much citizens of Russia as any other pedophile, zoophile and whatever else. No more and no less. If people are sick, make them admit to their retardation and whine quietly. Inside the closet. How are parades, carnivals and alliances of retards of any use? The rights of sodomites end where they exhibit their disease in front of children. As if this was a progressive and fashionable achievement.”

“Who is more conservative, Putin or society?” I ask.

Yevgeniy laughs but the answer follows quickly: “Society!“

“In Russia’s European part,“ he claims, “people are more tolerant. In the Asian part there is more homophobia. This is due to a general lack of knowledge that the LGBT community is nothing to be afraid of. Well, I think that in Russia the century of homophobia is ceasing. It took years for America and Europe as well. And there is still homophobia existing in these countries. The strategy needs to be cooperation. It doesn‘t need gay prides as Nikolay Alexeyev wants them. The Russian people is not ready for that. It takes trainings and events aimed to create more tolerance in high schools, universities, for teachers, doctors, psychologists and journalists. This is how we’re going to liberate our society from homophobia.”

International attention to Russia’s LGBT community has focused for a long time on activity in the Federation’s European part, where about 77 per cent of the Russian population lives. One personality has been associated with the community particularly often: Nikolay Alexeyev. The activist from Moscow rose to popularity for being the key figure in the organization of the first gay pride parade in Russia in 2006, which faced a fierce backlash of homophobic slurs by Moscow’s former mayor Yuriy Luzhkov and was eventually banned. The activists, backed by international supporters, did not submit to the decision which resulted in the parade being attacked by a raving mad crowd of fascists and religious fanatics. Alexeyev went on to continue his fight against suppression at the European Court of Human Rights, where he successfully sued the Russian state.

According to Yevgeniy, a strategy like this has done more harm than good and rendered society more hostile towards LGBT.   

“We don’t receive any grants from Europe at the moment,” he says, “because the ‘Russian LGBT Network’ writes applications and taps all of it. We have to raise the money ourselves. They don’t approve of our cooperation with the local administration. On every forum held by them they keep teaching the viciousness of the government. That’s why there’s little teamwork between them and us.”

Amongst those who support the local LGBT activists of Irkutsk are, according to Yevgeniy, even some high-ranking representatives of the Oblast who ask for anonymity.

As reasonable as this philosophy of cooperation and education might come across, it is apparent that Russia’s current politics remains the largest obstacle for it to blossom. Without the support of liberal lawmakers the educators will not be freed from the two largest legal leg irons that hinder them from getting started: Article 148 of the Russian criminal code and article 6.21 of Russia’s code on administrative offences. The former defining the violation of religious feelings as a crime and the latter being the infamous law on so-called “homosexual propaganda.” Both of them combine build a toolkit for any judge in the country to repress LGBT self-determination wherever it dares to make half a step out of the closet. No matter whether it is waving a rainbow flag at a street parade or telling a distressed teenager that his feelings are perfectly natural.

Being politically marginalized, the LGBT community cannot rely on any political party to include their interests in any public conversation. The only party to have drafted a serious program for the advancement of LGBT rights is Yabloko, but it failed to even reach the threshold for parliamentary representation during the elections in 2016.

When oppositionist star Ksenia Sobchak came to Irkutsk during her campaign for the presidential elections in 2018, she met Yevgeniy for a  ten minute conversation in which she invited him to write her on Instagram, he claims. Ultimately he found himself having been blocked by her account. “She decided it wasn’t worth the trouble so short before the elections. In the end she is just a regular homophobe like all the others. The same applies to Aleksey Navalny,” he reveals.

Consequently, Yevgeniy and his fellow activists are doomed to keep their heads under the radar while doing their social work. At least they are not isolated in Irkutsk‘s civil society. Their strongest supporters are the local anarchists, a network of 300 members, according to Yevgeniy. He remembers organizing a screening of the film Milk, depicting the biography of California’s first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk, which was highly appreciated. But in October 2018 the Russian secret police, the FSB, increased the pressure on the anarchist scene in Irkutsk. One of their activists, a student of Irkutsk State University, had been ordered to the principal’s office where two FSB agents threatened him with repression if he did not agree to work as an informer. Instead he made the case public and nationwide newspaper Medusa reported about it. This incident has complicated cooperation since all parties are in fear of retaliation by the officials. At present the atmosphere remains tense.

Does the Decembrists‘ heritage have a chance in Siberia? It depends on the power of endurance of those who are keeping it alive. One has to ask himself whether it is worth to hang on for another five years without assurance of what comes afterwards. “I have already two times resigned from my position in the organization,“ says Yevgeniy. “And after two months at most they called me, saying ‘Zhenya, we can’t cope with it anymore, we’re tired, we’re afraid.’ So I returned. Their enthusiasm quickly ignites but it fades away almost immediately.”

After years it seems as if Yevgeniy’s enthusiasm, too, is finally fading. He is planning to leave Russia for Canada by the end of this year.

This article was first featured on eastbook.eu 

Dario Planert is majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies on Russia at the University of Potsdam. The article was researched and written during a semester at the Baikal State University of Irkutsk in autumn 2018. He has an interest in human rights and culture of remembrance in Eastern Europe.

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